New Orleans Saints at Baltimore Ravens: 2018 Week 7 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (4-1) at Baltimore Ravens (4-2)

The Ravens are probably the team I was most wrong on coming into the season, as they’ve proven to be much improved on both sides of the ball. Their defense put up good numbers in 2017, but they also played 6 backup quarterbacks, which made their numbers look better than how they actually played. In 2018, the Ravens already have wins against the Broncos, Steelers, and Titans, all capable opponents, with their two losses coming on the road in Cleveland and Cincinnati in games in which they were competitive in the first down rate battle.

Despite a decent schedule, the Ravens have statistically been the top defense in the league through 6 weeks, allowing a 27.52% first down rate, and it hasn’t been close, as 2nd ranked Jacksonville allows a 31.28% first down rate. In 6 games, they’ve allowed just 93 first downs and 8 offensive touchdowns. Offensively, they haven’t been great, but they still rank 17th in first down rate, a big improvement over last year’s stagnant unit, and more than good enough to win games the way their defense is playing.

That being said, I think we’re still getting some line value with the visiting Saints this week, as 3 point underdogs. This line suggests these two teams are about equal, but the Saints are one of the top few teams in the league and I don’t quite put the Ravens in their class, especially with top cornerback Marlon Humphrey questionable after getting hurt in practice this week. This line shifted from Baltimore -1 on the early line to Baltimore -3 this week, a big line movement considering about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, as a result of the Ravens’ shutout win in Tennessee last week, but the Saints are a much tougher test, even if this one is back in Baltimore. The Saints, who have been on a roll since getting off to one of their trademark slow starts, are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 24 Baltimore Ravens 23 Upset Pick +125

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Medium

Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 5 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (2-1) at New Orleans Saints (3-1)

The Saints gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season, losing at home week 1 to the Buccaneers and then almost losing at the Browns at home week 2, but that’s been the case in recent years for them too and they’ve always gotten better as the season has gone on. They are just 2-12 ATS in the first 2 games of the season since 2012, but 52-38 ATS the rest of the season. With Mark Ingram returning, this is arguably the most balanced offense in the league and the defense still has talent, even if they haven’t played all that well to begin the season. They could easily keep rolling this week.

Their opponent, the Washington Redskins, are not a pushover and this line is a decent size at 6 points, but I think we’re still getting some line value with the Saints and the Saints are in a great spot going into the bye. Favorites of 6 or more tend to take care of business going into a bye, going 37-16 ATS since 2014, including 27-11 ATS at home. The Saints have a good chance to win this one by double digits, so they’re worth a bet as anything less than touchdown favorites.

New Orleans Saints 31 Washington Redskins 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6

Confidence: High

New Orleans Saints at New York Giants: 2018 Week 4 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (2-1) at New York Giants (1-2)

A popular Super Bowl pick, the Saints kind of stumbled out of the gate this season, losing to the Buccaneers week 1 and almost losing to the Browns week 2, despite being big home favorites in both games. As a result of that, it seems like people have kind of soured on them, as they are mere 3 point favorites here in New York against a Giants team that is one of the weaker in the NFC. I think that’s an overreaction. They still have one of the most talented rosters in the league and they’ve gotten off to slow starts before hitting their stride in other recent years too, going 2-12 ATS in the first two weeks of the season since 2012, but 51-38 ATS the rest of the season.

The Saints won last week in overtime in Atlanta and now head to New York to take on a Giants team that is pretty banged up right now. Already missing top edge rusher Olivier Vernon for the 4th straight week and starting cornerback Eli Apple for the 2nd straight week, the Giants will also be without starting tight end Evan Engram with an injury this week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -7, so we’re getting plenty of line value with the Saints at 3. They’re still worth a bet at 3.5, but 3 is available in enough places that you should be able to find it. At 3, the Saints are my Pick of the Week.

New Orleans Saints 31 New York Giants 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2018 Week 3 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (1-1) at Atlanta Falcons (1-1)

This line is at 3, suggesting these two teams are about even. A couple weeks ago, that would have been true, but the Falcons have had serious injury losses early in the season, with running back Devonta Freeman, left guard Andy Levitre, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Deion Jones, and safety Keanu Neal all going down in the first 2 weeks of the season. With the Falcons’ roster as it currently is, I have the Saints 5 points better than the Falcons, which would make this line around New Orleans -2.

The Saints have gotten off to a slow start, as they’ve failed to cover twice as big home favorites, losing to the Buccaneers week 1 and coming close to losing to the Browns week 2, which is probably why the line is where it is. I’m not that concerned though. Their schedule has been tougher than it originally looked, as the Buccaneers followed up their win with a win over the Saints, while the Browns could easily be 3-0 right now if they had a competent kicking unit.

The Saints have also typically gotten off to slow starts in recent years, going 2-12 ATS and 3-11 straight up in the first 2 weeks of the season since 2012, before going 50-38 ATS the rest of the year (4-2 ATS in week 3). It’s possible some of that slow start could carry over into this game, but I expect them to be completely focused for a big divisional game and they have the talent edge with the Falcons missing several key contributors. I’m not quite confident enough in the Saints for this to be my Pick of the Week this week, but this is too good of a number to pass on.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 30 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: High

Cleveland Browns at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-0-1) at New Orleans Saints (0-1)

I’ve gone back and forth on this one all week. On one hand, the line didn’t move from last week to this week, despite the Saints losing at home to the Buccaneers and the Browns tying the Steelers. The Saints remain 9.5 point favorites. On the other hand, that line seems about right. The Saints’ defense struggled mightily in the opener, but their offense played very well and they actually had an overall positive first down rate differential at +2.54%. The Buccaneers got a return touchdown, but the Saints and Buccaneers had an even amount of first downs and offensive touchdowns (26 and 5) and the Saints did it on 3 fewer plays.

The Browns aren’t in a good spot here either, as they just played close to 5 quarters and will have to turn around and play again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football at home against the Jets. The Browns are being cautious with their injured players this week as a result, with both wide receiver Josh Gordon, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, and linebacker Christian Kirksey already ruled out. The Saints aren’t in a good spot either, as the face the Falcons in Atlanta next week, but they should be focused after last week’s loss. This is a no confidence pick and the Browns could easily keep it close or get a garbage time backdoor cover, but the Saints are the pick here for pick ‘em pool purposes.

New Orleans Saints 34 Cleveland Browns 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -9.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A big reason why the NFL can be so tough to predict year-to-year is that some teams get huge contributions from their rookie classes and it’s not always easy to predict which teams those are going to be. Not only is the draft largely a crapshoot that even the best front offices have never consistently mastered, but even draft classes that turn out to be strong down the line don’t always make major impacts in year one.

Going into last season, the Saints were coming off three straight 7-9 finishes, despite quarterback Drew Brees exceeding 4800 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns in each of those 3 seasons. Brees was 38 years old and his supporting cast didn’t seem to improve drastically last off-season, so the Saints were understandably a longshot in the NFC.

However, thanks in large part to their rookie class, the Saints ended the season with a 11-5 record and won the NFC South. Few experts considered the Saints to be draft day winners in 2017, even though they had 6 picks in the first 3 rounds (the extra picks were acquired in trades that sent away Brandin Cooks and a 2018 2nd round pick), but their rookie class was easily the most impactful in the league last season.

All 6 of their picks in the first 3 rounds made positive rookie year impacts, most notably cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara, who were Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore was one of four defensive players the Saints took in the first 3 rounds, which helped shore up a defense that was annually the worst in the league prior to 2017, while Kamara and first round offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk helped improve the running game and offensive line around Brees.

Brees still looked good, finishing 4th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus (his 12th straight season in the top-7) and completing an NFL record 72.0% of his passes, but he was not nearly as involved in the offense as he was prior to 2017, as his 536 pass attempts were his fewest in a season since 2009 and his 23 passing touchdowns were his fewest since 2003. With Brees in his late 30s, the Saints want to be more of a run heavy team and their 2017 draft class helped them to do that last season by improving their running game and defense.

The big question at quarterback for the Saints is who comes after Drew Brees. The Saints have drafted just one quarterback higher than the 7th round in the Drew Brees era and that was 2015 3rd round pick Garrett Grayson, who never threw a pass in a regular season game and is no longer with the team. Head Coach Sean Payton has talked up 2017 undrafted free agent Taysom Hill as a quarterback of the future option, but he hasn’t thrown a regular season pass either.

When the Saints traded away their 2019 1st round pick to move up from 27 to 14 with the Packers, most assumed it was to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the Saints shocked everyone by selecting defensive end Marcus Davenport instead. Without a pick in the 2nd round from their trade for the Alvin Kamara selection in 2017, the Saints didn’t draft a quarterback in any round and now go into the 2018 season with a major long-term question mark at quarterback and no 2019 first round pick to use to address it.

If Davenport has the kind of impact that their first round picks did last year, the lack of a 2019 first round pick might not be a huge deal for a team that is in win now mode, but, if Brees declines and the Saints disappoint, they may regret trading away that first rounder. We’ve seen quarterbacks play well into their late 30s and early 40s in recent years, but we’ve also seen quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino lose it in a hurry. Without a better option (Taysom Hill is competing with failed Texans starter Tom Savage for the backup job), a significant drop off in play by Brees would likely sink this team’s playoff chances in a tough NFC.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While Lattimore and Kamara were the Saints’ two best rookies, 32nd overall selection Ryan Ramczyk had a huge impact as well. Many saw him as a bit of a panic selection for a team that was planning on taking linebacker Reuben Foster, only to see the 49ers trade up and take him one spot ahead of them. Ramczyk didn’t fill an obvious need for a team that used a first round pick on an offensive lineman in 2015 and had capable veteran starters at the other 4 spots, but offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief missed a combined 20 games with injury last season, so Ramczyk ended up making all 16 starts as rookie (2 at left tackle and 14 at right tackle).

Ramczyk didn’t just make all 16 starts, but also played at a high level, finished 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, excelling in the run game and allowing just 3 sacks and 5 hits on Brees. Strief retired ahead of his age 35 season this off-season, so Ramczyk is locked in at right tackle and will also provide insurance at left tackle in case Terron Armstead continues to struggle with injuries. Armstead has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons, but has played well when healthy and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Armstead’s last healthy season was 2015, when he finished 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF, after which the Saints locked him up on a 5-year, 65 million dollar extension. That extension hasn’t paid off yet, but, if both Armstead and Ramczyk stay healthy, the Saints should have one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league. If either suffers an injury, the Saints will probably shift left guard Andrus Peat outside, as they did last year for 4 starts at left tackle.

The 13th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Peat was drafted to play tackle and has made starts at 3 different spots on the line (15 at left tackle, 20 at left guard, 2 at right tackle), but, with Armstead and Ramczyk locked in at tackle, Peat is locked in at left guard barring an injury. He hasn’t been any better than a marginal starter in 3 years in the league, but perhaps he’ll take a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2018. The Saints still have high hopes for him, picking up his 5th year option worth 9.63 million for 2019, though that is only guaranteed for injury, so he might not see that money if he struggles this season.

One reason they may not want to give him that money is that, in addition to Terron Armstead’s big contract, they also have big long-term contracts with center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford, though none of those three deals have any guaranteed money beyond 2018 either. Unger received a 3-year, 22.22 million dollar extension from the Saints before the 2016 season and is scheduled to make 6.25 million and 6.95 million respectively in 2018 and 2019, while Warford signed a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal as a free agent coming over from the Lions last off-season and still has 23.9 million remaining over 3 seasons.

If Warford continues to play like he did last season, the Saints should have no problem paying him, as he finished 30th among guards on PFF. A 2013 3rd round pick of the Lions, Warford has been a top-20 ranked guard in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming as a rookie in 2013, when he ranked 5th at his position. His rookie year was also the last time he played all 16 games, as he’s dealt with numerous injuries over the past 4 seasons. He’s only missed 9 games, but he’s been limited with abdominal, ankle, knee, and hip injuries in recent years and has also suffered multiple concussions. Only going into his age 27 season, he should have another solid season if he can stay healthy, but his health is always a question mark.

Max Unger, on the other hand, has only missed 1 game over the past 3 seasons, but he seemed limited early on last season after having off-season foot surgery. He improved down the stretch, but he finished 29th out of 38 eligible centers on the season because of a terrible start. Going into his age 32 season, Unger may need a bounce back season to justify his non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he definitely could have that bounce back season. Prior to last season, he finished 10th and 9th respectively at his position in 2015 and 2016 and he has made 114 starts in 9 seasons in the league. The Saints lost key reserve Senio Kelemete this off-season and he was capable in 8 spot starts in 2017, but, as long as they stay healthy, they should have one of the better offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Despite Drew Brees having his lowest passing touchdown total in a decade and a half, the Saints still finished last season with 46 offensive touchdowns, 3rd most in the NFL behind the Patriots and Eagles. That’s because the Saints led the league in rushing touchdowns with 23, with no other team rushing for more than 18 touchdowns. Alvin Kamara was Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he was more of a hybrid running back/wide receiver, so it was Mark Ingram instead who lead this team with 230 carries, almost double Kamara’s 120. Twelve of those 23 rushing touchdowns were his, tying him with LeSean McCoy for most in the league.

Ingram didn’t quite have Alvin Kamara’s league leading 6.07 yards per carry, but that’s because few ever reach that number. Kamara is one of just 15 running backs all-time to average more than 6 yards per carry on 100+ carries and just one of 5 running backs to do it in the last 30 years. Ingram’s 4.89 yards per carry average on almost double the carries was really impressive too, as that figure ranked 3rd in the NFL among running backs, only behind Kamara and Dion Lewis.

Ingram and Kamara combined for 16 carries of 20 yards or more, most of any duo in the NFL, and also did a good job keeping the offense on schedule, ranking 6th and 12th respectively in carry success rate. The offensive line was a big part of their success, but Kamara and Ingram were a huge part of what made this offense work last season. Ingram also caught 58 passes for 416 yards, but that was dwarfed by what Alvin Kamara did in the passing game. While all of Ingram’s catches came as a running back out of the backfield, Kamara routinely lined up in the slot (79 snaps) and out wide (66 snaps) and totaled 81 yards and 826 touchdowns on 5 catches on the season.

It wasn’t just the big plays with Alvin Kamara either, as he totaled 78 first downs on just 201 touches. Mark Ingram, as well as he played, had just 69 on 288 touches, while rushing yards leader Kareem Hunt, who finished 2nd to Kamara in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, had the same amount of first downs as Kamara (78) on 325 touches. Kamara finished the season tied with Todd Gurley as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back.

The problem for the Saints going into 2018 is that Mark Ingram was suspended for the first 4 games of the season after testing positive for a performance enhancer. In his absence, Kamara will be the feature back, while end of the roster types like Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, and 6th round rookie Boston Scott will compete for backup duties. Those players are obvious drop offs from Ingram talentwise, but it’s only for 4 games and the Saints were reportedly planning on featuring Kamara more in the running game anyway.

Kamara will have an opportunity to lock down the lead back job in Ingram’s absence, but Ingram should still have a role upon his return regardless. The Saints have always used multiple backs, and, because of how much work he gets in the passing game, Kamara may never be a 300+ carry back. Kamara could easily clear 300 touches this season though, if he proves he can handle the larger workload. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be as efficient of a runner on a per carry basis as was last season, especially with a much larger role, but he definitely has the talent to be one of the best few all-around running backs in the league for the foreseeable future if he can avoid injury.

Ingram, on the other hand, may be limited to a 10-12 touch role upon his return, a big drop off from the 18 touches per game he averaged last season. He’s still a talented all-around back, who has worked hard to become an improved pass catcher in recent years, and he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career, but he’s going into his age 29 contract season and might not be brought back as a free agent next off-season if Kamara proves he can handle the larger role. It’s also fair to wonder how much of his career best season last year was as a result of whatever he tested positive for. All things considered though, the Saints still have an enviable running back situation.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Part of the reason why the Saints had so many completions to running backs last season (league leading 143) is because they lacked for options at wide receiver and tight end. Brandon Coleman ranked 3rd among Saints wide receivers/tight ends with just 23 catches. That’s a drastic shift from 2016, when the Saints had 3 wide receivers and a tight end with more than 600 yards and 2 wide receivers with more than 1000 yards. Mark Ingram’s 46 catches in 2016 were just 5th on the team. In fact, the Saints were so deep in the receiving corps after 2016 that they were comfortable trading away top receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for a 1st and 3rd round pick.

Cooks departure was a big part of the reason why the Saints were not nearly as good in the receiving corps in 2017 as they were in 2016, but they also got disappointing seasons from both Willie Snead and tight end Coby Fleener, who totaled 895 and 631 receiving yards respectively in 2016. In 2017, Snead was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for DUI and was buried on the depth chart upon his return, with injuries and ineffectiveness limiting him to just 8 catches in 11 games. Fleener, on the other hand, had 5 catches in the opener against Minnesota, but just 17 catches the rest of the way. He also missed 5 games with injury and finished the season on injured reserve with concussion problems. Both Snead and Fleener are no longer with the team.

With Snead and Fleener struggling, veteran free agent acquisition Ted Ginn stepped up as the #2 receiver, putting up a 53/787/4 slash line. Known mostly for his return abilities early in his career, Ted Ginn has developed into a useful deep threat in recent years, topping 700 yards in 3 straight seasons with the Panthers and Saints and averaging 15.1 yards per reception over that time period. However, he’s going into his age 33 season, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep this up, especially given how reliant he is on the top level athleticism he may quickly lose in the next couple years.

The Saints made finding better depth behind him a priority this season, so it’s very possible Ginn sees a significant drop off in production this season. The Saints signed restricted free agent Cameron Meredith from the Bears on a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal and also used a 3rd round pick on Central Florida’s Tre’Quan Smith. Meredith is a 2015 undrafted free agent who had a mini-breakout season in 2016 with a 66/888/4 slash line, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL, while Smith is a bigger bodied deep threat at 6-2 203, but needs to become a more natural catcher of the football. Smith may take a year to develop, but Meredith should be able to push Ginn for playing time in 2018, provided he’s healthy after missing last season.

The Saints also made adding talent at tight end a priority this off-season, bringing back a familiar face to replace Coby Fleener as the pass catching tight end, signing Ben Watson from the Ravens. Watson spent 2013-2015 with the Saints and proved to have good chemistry with Drew Brees, posting an improbable 74/825/6 slash line in his age 35 season in 2015, all of which were career highs. Watson is now going into his age 38 season and has a torn achilles that cost him his entire 2016 season on his resume, but he proved to have something left in the tank in 2017, leading the Ravens with 61 catches. He showed a complete lack of explosiveness, averaging just 8.6 yards per catch, but he could still be a reliable underneath target for Drew Brees in 2018.

Coby Fleener only leaves behind 269 snaps, as he fell down the depth chart as the season went out and then had his season cut short by injury, but Watson should have the opportunity to get more playing time than that, after signing a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal. He’ll be pushed for playing time by Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui, who played 588 and 419 snaps respectively last season. Neither is much of a pass catcher, totaling 16 catches and 6 catches respectively last season. Hill is a backup caliber tight end who doesn’t stand out as a receiver or a blocker, while Hoomanawanui has never topped 13 catches in 8 seasons in the league, but is still around because of his above average blocking at 6-4 265. Watson is their only receiving threat at tight end.

With an uncertain group at wide receiver and tight end, the Saints will likely rely heavily on #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas, a 2016 2nd round pick who has emerged as a legitimate All-Pro caliber player in just 2 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Thomas has put up 92/1137/9 and 104/1245/5 slash lines on 122 and 149 targets respectively in those 2 seasons and, only going into his age 25 season, may not have reached his peak yet. His emergence was the #1 reason why the Saints felt comfortable moving on from Cooks, but the Saints do need players at step up behind him on the depth chart at wide receiver and they need someone to step up as a pass catching tight end.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the Saints’ offense was in 2017, they would not have made the playoffs if they didn’t improve significantly on defense. After finishing dead last in first down rate allowed in both 2015 and 2016, the Saints were middle of the pack in 2017, finishing 17th. Combined with an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate, the Saints finished last season with the 7th best first down rate differential in the league.

Defensive lineman Cameron Jordan was on those last place defenses and played well, but he had arguably the best season of his career in 2017 and that was a big part of why the Saints improved defensively. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end, totaling 14 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 47 quarterback hurries, and 10 batted passes, all among the most in the league, while also playing well against the run. Though last season was arguably the best of his career, Jordan is no stranger to dominant seasons, finishing 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in both 2015 and 2016 as well. Going into his age 29 season, Jordan is one of the best defensive players in the league and should continue playing at a high level in 2018.

The Saints didn’t have another pass rusher with more than 5 sacks in 2017 though, so, in that sense, it’s not a huge surprise that the Saints moved up in the first round to draft defensive end Marcus Davenport. However, it is a big surprise that the Saints gave away a future first round pick to move from 27 to 14 to get a player that many expected would fall into the late teens. They became the first team in the modern draft era to trade two first round picks to move up and get a pick outside of the top-12.

I understand the Saints wanting to be aggressive with Drew Brees in the twilight of his career, but, unless Davenport becomes an All-Pro caliber player, they may regret moving up for him. Davenport has the tools to become a really good player down the line, but he’s considered a work in progress and more of an athlete than a pass rusher coming out of FBS UT San Antonio. He could struggle to have an immediate impact like last year’s rookies did.

Davenport also joins a pretty crowded position group, with 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson deserving of a larger role after flashing on 281 snaps as a rookie and veteran Alex Okafor re-signing on a 2-year, 6.7875 million dollar deal this off-season. Even though the Saints didn’t have another big sack total other than Jordan’s, Okafor still had a pretty solid season last year before tearing his achilles, totaling 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 21 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps in 10 games. Obviously the injury complicates his 2018 outlook and last season was the first season in his career in which he earned positive grades from PFF, but Okafor could be a useful part of this rotation in 2018.

With the Saints going four deep at defensive end, they may frequently use three defensive ends in passing situations, lining up either Cameron Jordan or Trey Hendrickson inside in sub packages. Jordan didn’t line up inside that often last season, but has the size to do so at 6-4 287 and has some experience as an interior pass rusher from earlier in his career. Hendrickson also has good size at 6-4 270 and saw about half of his pass rush snaps from the interior last season, totaling 135 edge rush snaps and 100 interior rush snaps.

Both Tyler Davison and David Onyemata are involved heavily in the rotation at defensive tackle in base packages (588 snaps and 598 snaps respectively last season), but neither is much of an interior pass rusher, totalling just 3 sacks and 5 hits between them. Davison and Onyemata are both one-year wonders too, as neither had shown much on the field prior to last season. Davison was a 5th round pick back in 2015, while Onyemata was a 4th rounder back in 2016, so it’s possible both players continue playing well against the run, but that’s not a given.

Sheldon Rankins is the Saints’ only true every down defensive tackle. A 2016 1st round pick, Rankins was limited to 9 games as a rookie after breaking his leg during the pre-season and struggled mightily when he did return to the field, but he was much improved in 2017 when he was healthy. Rankins struggled a bit against the run, but impressed as a pass rusher and earned a positive overall grade from PFF. He managed just 2 sacks, but also had 7 hits and 35 hurries. Only going into his 3rd season in the league, he could easily continue improving in 2018 and beyond. This is a pretty deep defensive line going into the season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Trey Hendrickson was one third round rookie that made a small impact on this defense as a rookie. Former Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone is the other one. Anzalone started the first 4 games of the season and held his own on 77% of the snaps during the first 3 weeks of the season, but then went down for the season with a shoulder injury 4 snaps into week 4. That’s especially concerning because his shoulder issues date back to his collegiate days and are a big part of why he fell to the 3rd round. In fact, many were surprised that he went as early as he did given his durability issues. If he can come back healthy and stay healthy, he has the talent to be an every down linebacker in the NFL, but that’s far from a guaranteed.

If Anzalone is able to return in 2018, he’ll return to a linebacking corps where the playing time is very much up for grabs, with only free agent acquisition Demario Davis locked into a role. Davis, formerly of the Jets, signed a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Saints this off-season. That’s a big increase from 2017, when he made just 1 million in base salary and 1.225 million in incentives. Davis was originally scheduled to make 3.7 million for the Browns in 2017, but the Browns were going to cut him at that rate, so instead they traded him to the Jets for Calvin Pryor, who the Browns eventually cut anyway.

Once with the Jets, Davis re-negotiated an incentivized contract to stay on the roster and ended up playing every defensive snap for them. Not only that, but he also played at a high level, totaling 135 tackles (6th most in the league), including 14 for a loss and 5 sacks. He also led all middle linebackers in run stops with 65. Perhaps most importantly, he held up in coverage, which had always been a big issue for him. As a result, he finished 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus.

Davis was a relatively high pick, going in the 3rd round in 2012, and he’s experienced, with 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including 79 out of 80 in the past 5 seasons. However, he’s never come close to matching the level he played at in 2017. He’s always been a capable run stuffer, but he earned a negative overall grade from PFF in each of his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season because of struggles in coverage. It’s fair to question if he can do it again and the Saints are paying a lot of money to find out, as he’s guaranteed 16.4 million over the first 2 years of the deal. He’s also spent his entire 6-year career in a 3-4 defense and isn’t a great fit as a 4-3 middle linebacker because of his lack of sideline to sideline speed.

In Anzalone’s absence, Craig Robertson (790 snaps), AJ Klein (664 snaps), and Manti Te’o (500 snaps) led New Orleans linebackers in snaps last season. All three veterans are still on the roster and will compete for roles in this crowded linebacking corps. Te’o played middle linebacker last season, the position Davis figures to take over, so his role seems to be the most in doubt. Te’o was a 2nd round pick by the Chargers in 2013, but never lived up to it. He graded as one of the worst linebackers in the league in 2015 and then tore his achilles 3 games into 2016. The Saints got him cheap on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal last off-season and he wasn’t horrible in a two-down role in 2017, but it’s hard to see where he fits in with Davis in town.

Klein was the worst of the trio in 2017, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. Prior to last season, Klein never played more than 350 snaps in a season, so it’s unclear why the Saints committed 10 million guaranteed to him in the first 2 seasons of a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season. Klein came over from Carolina, where he was a 5th round pick back in 2013. He’ll compete with Anzalone and Robertson for playing time at outside linebacker.

Robertson was probably their best linebacker last season, though that isn’t saying much. He’s experienced, with 64 starts in 89 career games in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s always struggled in coverage, so he might be best in a two-down base package role at this stage of his career, going into his age 30 season. He’s part of a linebacking corps that is crowded, but lacks major difference makers. The Saints will obviously be hoping that Demario Davis can continue playing like he did last season in an every down role and that Alex Anzalone can stay healthy and play like he did last season before getting hurt, but those things happening are far from guaranteed.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The biggest reason why the Saints improved so much defensively last season was the addition of rookie Marshon Lattimore, the 11th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore allowed just 52.9% completion as a rookie and had 5 interceptions and 10 pass deflections, while not allowing a single touchdown. Finishing 9th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league from the word go as a rookie. Only Jacksonville’s AJ Bouye played more coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown in 2017.

Lattimore obviously has a massive upside and could easily be one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the next 5 years, but injuries are the one concern with him. Hamstring problems limited him at Ohio State and possibly caused him to fall out of the top-10. While he did not have hamstring problems as a rookie, he did miss 3 games with concussion and ankle problems. Barring injuries slowing him down, he has a very bright future.

As big as the addition of Lattimore was to this defense, the Saints also benefited from a breakout year from #2 cornerback Ken Crawley. Crawley, a 2016 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie (502 snaps), but earned a starting role for the Saints in the pre-season and ended up holding up well opposite Lattimore. Crawley did commit 10 penalties and only had 1 interception, but he deflected 13 passes and allowed just 50% completion on his targets. He finished the season as PFF’s 30th ranked cornerback, though he did also miss 3 games with injury. Given that he’s a one-year wonder and a former undrafted free agent, it’s fair to wonder if he can do it again, but he should have a big role in the Saints’ secondary regardless.

The one area the Saints really struggled last season was covering slot receivers. Converted safety Kenny Vaccaro was their primary slot coverage back last season, but he finished 103th out of 121 in coverage grade among cornerbacks last season. PJ Williams also saw some time on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but he’s a more natural fit outside, where he did an adequate job in 6 spot starts when Lattimore and Crawley were hurt. In an effort to improve their slot coverage, the Saints signed ex-Eagle cornerback Patrick Robinson to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal.

It’s a homecoming for Robinson, who was originally drafted by the Saints with the 32nd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Robinson got off to a solid start in New Orleans, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011 and becoming a starter in 2012, making all 16 starts. However, he struggled mightily in 2012 and then missed all but two games in 2013 with injury. In 2014, he was solid in a part-time role, but was not brought back as a free agent and then spent a year in San Diego, Indianapolis, and then Philadelphia last season.

He was only able to sign a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal with the Eagles, but had easily the best season of his career, excelling on the slot and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback. The Saints are hoping that his performance last season was not a fluke, but, given that he’s already going into his age 31 season, it’s unlikely that he matches last year’s strong performance. He won’t need to match last season to be an upgrade for the Saints on the slot though. He also has experience outside and could push Crawley for his job if Crawley has an underwhelming off-season.

Lattimore was not the only rookie to have a big impact in the Saints’ secondary in 2017, as 2nd round pick Marcus Williams started 15 games and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked safety on the season. He might be most famous for his missed tackle on Minnesota’s game winning touchdown in the playoffs, but the terrible defensive play call was more to blame for the result of that play and Williams did a stellar job as a deep safety prior to that. That completion was just the 6th completion he allowed all year and he also picked off 5 passes, including one in that playoff loss. He should be able to bounce back from that and have a strong season.

Opposite him, the starting job is up for grabs, though free agent acquisition Kurt Coleman signed a 3-year, 16.35 million dollar deal that would suggest he’s the favorite for the starting job. It was a bit of a surprise that Coleman received that big of a contract, given that the Panthers cut him rather than paying him 4.1 million non-guaranteed in 2018. It’s rare that a player gets cut and ends up getting a raise, but that’s exactly what happened in Coleman’s case. Coleman was PFF’s 82nd ranked safety out of 89 eligible in 2017, but was a capable starter in both 2015 and 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him, but he still could be a capable starter for another couple seasons.

The other candidate for the other starting job is Vonn Bell, a 2016 2nd round pick who has made 24 starts in 2 seasons in the league. Bell has struggled in both seasons, especially in 2017, when he finished 84th out of 89 eligible safeties, which is probably why they brought in Coleman. That being said, Bell could still play a valuable role as a 3rd safety because of his versatility. While he struggles with deep coverage, he has the ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker in sub packages. With an uncertain group at linebacker and two safeties probably ahead of him on the depth chart, Bell may see significant action as a sub package linebacker. The Saints have a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Overall

The Saints didn’t change too much this off-season, after a strong strong that ended in a stunning late second defeat in the divisional round in Minnesota. They could easily be as good as they were last year and contend for the Super Bowl again, but there’s also downside with this team. Drew Brees is getting up there in age, their running back duo might not be as good as it was last season, and their young defense may struggle to match last season’s surprising season. They still have the talent to be a playoff team, but may find making the postseason tough in the loaded NFC if they aren’t quite as good as they were last season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: There is considerable downside with this team, given Drew Brees’ age, but the Saints protected themselves a little bit by adding Teddy Bridgewater as a backup quarterback via trade with the Jets. Assuming Brees holds up for another season, the Saints should be contenders again in 2018.

Prediction: 11-5 2nd in NFC South

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

These two teams met way back in week 1, with Minnesota winning 29-19 at home, but so much has changed since then. At the time, that game was seen as a breakout game for both Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford (346 passing yards, 3 TDs) and Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook (137 yards from scrimmage) and yet another example of the Saints struggling defensively, as they had for years. Bradford and Cook combined to play just 4 games the rest of the way due to knee injuries, while the Saints’ defense finished in the middle of the pack statistically this season thanks to breakout performances by rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who both got better as the season went on.

The Vikings’ offense obviously managed pretty well without Bradford and Cook, but they too finished middle of the pack, despite looking like potentially a top offense back in week 1. The Vikings would go on to win 13 games with Case Keenum under center and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray as their backs, but their defense was the primary reason they were winning games, as they finished 2nd in first down rate allowed, only behind the Jaguars.

On top of that, the Saints’ leading rusher week 1 was Adrian Peterson with 18 rushing yards and he is no longer on the team, getting traded to the Cardinals back in week 6, which cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (who combined for just 35 rushing yards on 13 carries back in week 1) to become the first running back duo ever to both compile 1,500 yards from scrimmage. After losing their first 2 games of the season to teams that would finish 13-3 (Minnesota and New England), the Saints ripped off 8 straight wins and finished as 11-5 champions of the NFC South, despite having the toughest schedule in the league by opponents’ record.

After all that’s changed with these teams, these two teams are the best in the NFC and very evenly matched on paper. The Vikings have a dominant defense and a capable offense, while the Saints have a dominant offense and a capable defense. It’s a shame that these two teams had to meet before the NFC Championship and I think the winner of this game will be playing in the Super Bowl in 3 weeks. I said last week that I think the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC and I stand by that, but the Vikings are very close.

I give the edge to the Saints because of experience. Case Keenum is starting his first ever playoff game and quarterbacks do not have a good track record in their first playoff start, while the Saints are easily the most experienced team in the NFC, with the duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton together for 11 playoff games since they united in 2006. The Vikings obviously have homefield advantage, which could end up being the deciding factor in this game, but the Saints have a good chance to cover this 4-point spread even if they can’t quite pull the upset, as about 30% of games are decided by 4 points. The money line is also worth a bet because this game is close to a toss up.

New Orleans Saints 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: High